Monday, September 27, 2010

literary connections

i've never really been the kind of person to have heroes per se, but since i do a lot of reading, there are some authors that i've greatly appreciated and even admired over the years. some of them i'll never meet this side of eternity -- men like a.w. tozer, c.s. lewis, and andrew murray. but i have had a few happy occasions to connect with living authors that i've appreciated, some of them in surprising and quirky ways.

tonight is a great example. i happened into a brief e-mail conversation with thomas sowell, the renowned political and social commentator from stanford's hoover institution. i've been interacting with his thinking for decades now, going back to a conflict of visions (a brief, dense read on how political conflict is rooted in differences in worldview) and inside american education (a critique of american education from grade school to grad school, with suggestions about how to renew the system). i subscribe to dr. sowell's columns online, so i still read him regularly, and occasionally, i get the chance to take in one of his books (most recently, applied economics: thinking beyond stage one).

the exchange was kind of surreal. i was reading his column from today -- a recurring feature entitled "random thoughts" and among his various observations on race, politics, and history, spotted his invitation to respond to a baseball trivia question ("who led the major leagues in extra-base hits the year that babe ruth set his record of 60 home runs?"), with the promise that the first ten correct responders would get a copy of his latest book, intellectuals and society. the odds couldn't be good, as there must be thousands of people who read his columns, but why not take a shot? so i did, and remarkably, i won a book! when i realized he was online, i took the opportunity to thank him for his work over the years and to express my appreciation for his clear thinking and straight talk, even when i don't agree with him. he thanked me for my comments and said the book was on its way. :-)

but that's only the most recent example of what seems to be a motif:
  • in early 2009, i was reading sundown towns, a book by james louwen, a sociologist and favorite author of mine ever since i read lies my teacher told me (an insightful consideration of how american history is taught). sundown narrates the story of how thousands of american towns -- mostly not in the south -- became all-white by violently driving out black and other minority residents, including the chinese. after that, they enforced a 'no blacks after sundown' policy, hence the name of the book; a number of them remain all-white or nearly so to this day. while i was reading the book, i found a notice online that dr. louwen was going to be here in washington state at evergreen state college. it would be a bit of a drive, but i thought it was worth going to see him, so i e-mailed to ask if he'd like to go to lunch, my treat. secretly, i even wondered if it might work to invite him to come address folks from our church on the history of race relations and conflict. as it turned out, he had been in washington the year before(!), so i had already missed him. but we did have a very pleasant interaction in e-mail and i was able to share with him how much i had enjoyed his work. not long after that, i purchased and devoured a copy of his book, the mississippi chinese: between black and white, an analysis of racial and social dynamics in the delta from the time of the reconstruction through the end of legal segregation. it chronicles the journey of the chinese from 'colored' to 'white' status. my mother's family was there during much of the period he was examining, actually living these changes. i found the book not only fascinating and educational, but quite affecting; i was emotional as i re-lived the challenges my forebears faced and overcame in those years - and found new compassion for them as i agonized over social-moral decisions they made, for my benefit, in a difficult social setting.
  • years ago, i called torchbearers international to see if it might be possible to get cases of major ian thomas' the saving life of Christ, one of my favorite books on the christian life, to give away as gifts. thomas introduces the book with a bit of autobiography, recounting how his youthful commitment to Jesus and the ministry had led to burnout, and then to the discovery of what he considers the key to long-term passion and power - the saving life of Jesus in us who believe (romans 5:10). i was telling her how much i appreciated the book and what it had meant to me, when she suddenly offered, "would you like to speak with major thomas?" in the twinkling of an eye, i found myself in a phone conversation with the major himself! after our conversation, he sent me a video series of messages he had preached!
  • going back even further, i had the chance to interact with john white, author of a number of books i've appreciated (the cost of commitment, daring to draw near, when the Spirit comes with power), but none so much as the fight -- a longtime favorite of mine on the basics of following Jesus. i've probably bought and given away a case of those, one book at a time. anyway, i had heard him speak in berkeley but never had a chance to talk with him until i was studying at regent college in vancouver in 1989 with a group of intervarsity staff. we visited the church where dr. white was preaching, and i can't remember how it happened, but a whole group of us ended up at his house, where he prayed and prophesied over us (that part, i remember pretty well!).
naturally, there have been others, but these were special because of the way they stimulated my thinking and in some cases, my relationship with Jesus. it was a treat to get to know them a little bit, a love gift from heaven. for the sharpness of their intellects and the insightfulness of their words, they remain some of my personal favorites.


marguerite said...

It is thrilling, Barry, to meet authors we admire. I remember being so struck by personal interactions with John Perkins (in college) and Helen Roseveare (through T's CMDS chapter). I was foolish to miss opportunities to hear Walter Trobisch and Henri Nouwen - I should have prioritized going to hear/meet them over studying. By the way, I enjoyed having dinner with your other lovely daughter over the weekend. (P.S. My sister studied the Mississippi Chinese American experience as part of her Ethnic Studies PhD work at Cal - she had some fascinating stories.)

gr8god said...

thanks for your note, marguerite. it really was surprisingly fun to me - a treat.

i still remember meeting john perkins - a whole other story that i love to tell - but it was before i had read his books and i didn't know who he was! he was just a friend of donna dong's. later, after i read his story, some of my experience of meeting him (including a kind of regal 'weightiness') suddenly made a lot more sense.

would love to have known henri nouwen...